Thursday, October 23, 2008

Neuroscience denial is the new wedge

New Scientist magazine has a great article out on how the Discovery Institute, the Seattle based "think"-tank infamous for promoting intelligent design creationism, has a new wedge: neuroscience. While the Institute has long focused on evolution, its overarching aim and its real ideology has always been to overturn materialism, as the opening paragraphs of the Wedge document (pdf) made clear:
The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements...

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.
Perhaps as a result of a string of recent setbacks on the evolution front (like Kitzmiller vs. Dover), it seems the Institute is switching tactics and is trying to resuscitate Cartesian dualism. The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, you will remember, argued in the Meditations on First Philosophy and elsewhere that there were two kinds of substances: matter, which made up the body, and a nonmaterial soul which accounted for the mind and consciousness. (The mind and the body were supposed to interact via the pineal gland). It goes without saying that there are innumerable problems with this view and long before the advent of modern neuroscience numerous philosophers contended dualism is untenable. Indeed, as far as I can see, dualism is dead in modern professional philosophy. Of course, neurology and neuroscience have closed the case on dualism: the evidence is now overwhelming that the mind is what the brain does (in Pinker's felicitous phrase).

The problem for the religious, though, is that materialism is manifestly incompatible with traditional religious notions like personal immortality and a divinely ordered universe. (See Richards, 2000 for example). A successful science of the mind and brain, therefore, indirectly undermines religion by reducing the area of the unexplained, thus eliminating gaps where Gods might otherwise reside. It's as if neuroscientists are saying of skyhooks, like LaPlace is reputed to have done: 'I have no need for that hypothesis'. In the perverse logic of the intelligent design movement, therefore, dualism must be resurrected and defended from attack.

While I have no doubt Discovery Institute fools will fail (once more), our understanding of how the mind and brain work is far less complete than our understanding of evolution and is thus more open to attack. Vigilance is necessary: neuroscience denial is the new wedge and we should parry the thin edge.

(See also: Steven Novella's response to the New Scientist piece).

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